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Diamanda Galas

Diamanda Galas makes music like nobody else. We talked to her before a performance of Defixiones, a work about living in exile and forgotten genocide in the Near East that draws on everything from Lebanese poetry to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Hardcore.

Whether you’re protesting about AIDS, or dealing with armenian history, or whatever, it seems like there’s only one theme there really, that you’re protesting, and you can’t help pointing out injustice… is that right? that injustice is what all your work is about?

These are always interesting things for me to realise, also - you never really know why you become so intractably attracted to something. To me it’s the same thing - I think, ‘Well I haven’t heard enough voices speaking about this, so I’d better say something.’ I’m like the one person in the crowd who says, ‘Everybody is saying this one fucking thing, and nobody’s said this other thing, and what about this thing that needs to be said?’ I have a choice: I can go home and not say anything, and go home safely, or I can say it and have everybody call me a fucking asshole. Well, I’ll pick the second one, because that allows me to go to sleep at night, where if I picked the first one, that would kill me, it would just kill me. That’s the position, and I’m not really sure why that’s been my way of approaching things, but that is definitely it.

And they are always subjects that people are unwilling to talk about…

These subjects are always kind of unpopular subjects. AIDS is a more popular subject now, because people are less afraid of it, or people in this part of the world are less afraid of it, because they think it’s gone away for some bizarre reason. Now this is a new thing that’s just happened here, and the AIDS virus has gone away. Americans need to be woken up, I mean nothing horrible has happened in America for years. Really? What about all my friends who just died in the last twenty years? What about the United States of Aids and the trauma and the horror and the fact that we still have this virus? It’s amazing.

They’re very personal concerns as well, though, with your brother or with your family history…

I’m not a fucking propagandist. If someone used something I’ve said on a poster I’d probably be the first to faint. In disgust. My reaction to that would be, ‘Eugh, my God! You must have said something really dishonest for that fuck to put it on a poster!’ It just doesn’t swing that way, it isn’t that obvious. I got complaints when I was first working on Plague Mass, when I first came to new York, people were saying, ‘Hey, you’re singing this in like ten different languages, maybe you should do it all in English’ and I was like, ‘Oh right, only people who speak English are getting this virus, how could I have not realised this?’ Or shit like, ‘Could you try to make your stuff a little more simple, so more people can understand it?’ No! The most important thing is that I know what the fuck I’m singing about, I’m not going to make it more fucking simple so that you and Joe fucking Blow over there can figure it out. If you can’t figure it out, that’s not my fucking problem, go listen to fucking Melissa Etheridge.

So you’re not worried about balancing things so you get your message across?

No! I’m not getting paid to do this, I’m not some politician. If that were my job, then yes I would considered that, but then I’d have to consider many other forms of prostitution, and I don’t have to do that.

So you don’t mind that your records are pretty innaccessible…

Nope, my catalogue of work is really a lot more inaccessible than my live performance because you’re only getting one dimension. I just say to people, ‘Yeah, you can have a record, sure here’s a record!’

Right! And i guess one thing that makes them innacessible is your vocal style. How did that develop?

The vocal style? You know, Right now there are four different records coming out. One is a re-release of Panoptica, one is Insecta, one is Defixiones, and the other one is (erm) and there are a lot of different vocal styles in there. A lot of the voice and piano stuff is very stark, very simple, very focussed on each word and dragging each word out and really articulating. Then other pieces are multi-tracked vocal stuff, or solo voice with ring modulation and quadraphonic space… It all depends on what I’m trying to do, let’s say as an artist. If I was a painter, people would say that this is one series of work, or if I was Scorcese people would say this film has to do with hoods in New York, or this film has to do with Cape Fear. As a musician people don’t like to understand that you have different types of work. Classical musicians can write works for symphony, works for quartet, works for electronics. Venakis is a perfect example, he did work for digital electronic pieces that scare the shit out of lots of people, then turn around and write a string quartet, and people would turn around and say, ‘So you’re only writing string quartets now?’ and he’s turn around and say, ‘What the fuck’s wrong with you, malaka (sp?), I write everything I hear.’ It’s not as if anyone would tell you that you can’t write an essay because you’re a poet… you see what I’m saying?

Yeah, different styles are suited to different aims… that makes me think: do you see yourself in a particular tradition?

The isolated tradition of me! (laughs)

It’s just you?

Yeah! Really, I see myself in the tradition of… when you die, they finally get it! Like, many years afterwards. I realise that this is a problem for many people in the music world. If you remain consistent to one way of working, whether it’s just electronics, or just voice and piano, they know how to sell it. When you don’t remain consistent, they don’t know how to sell it. So the only way around that is to be around so long that when someone says your name, people have seen you perform and know whether they want to see you perform again. I don’t volunteer consistency in my work, and I don’t have to because I have a record label that isn’t interested in selling records when it comes to me. I mean, they may be interested in selling Depeche Mode records, but they’re not interested in selling mine, they are interested in putting them out.

So what inspires all this inconsistency? You touch on gospel or jazz or classical or whatever — what is it that inspires these choices?

Well, here I am. I’m an Anatolian Greek - a middle eastern Greek - and I’m an American, which is a bloody weird combination. That’s fucking weird! It already says that I’m a Greek in the middle east, which means living under the influence of the Turks as a slave to Islam, and that has a lot to do with Defixiones. Then you have the American side, which is… I mean the finest music here that I know is from the south, whether it’s white country blues, or black country blues, it’s really powerful music. So I was raised with that, and with New Orleans music from my father’s band. You know, one of America’s most famous blues artists, Johnny Otis?


He was a Greek!


Yeah, I mean who knew? Nobody! The guy was walking around in these pimp clothes for so many years, totally in the black community and thought of himself as Greek and Black. He chose it, and was perceived as Black. I was in Princeton the other week, and the Greek department were thinking of inviting him over for a fellowship. I loved that, the idea of this guy rolling around in his pimpmobile having a fucking fellowship…

At Princeton!

Yeah! That I would have loved. So, yeah, that’s my combination anyway, that’s where I’m coming form.

So, it’s a natural result of all the music you grew up with…

Yeah, and the culture. What it is to be Greek, what it is to be Middle Eastern, what it is to be American… and the singing comes naturally because I was raised that way, my father sang that way. I just know how to sing this way, but I also know how to sing the blues. And that combination is really interesting: it enriches the blues to introduce the Middle Eastern scales. Or to RE-introduce them, because otherwise all we’re hearing is the same fucking shit all the time from the pop music people, or even worse the jazz music people who are so fucking conservative right now that they introduce all this crud that they think is new jazz singing or blues singing and it’s just the same fucking scales, and it’s boring the shit out of the music…

Yeah, that’s the thing with jazz. It always goes on about being experimental, then gets stuck in a rut for, I don’t know, twenty years at a time…

Oh, yeah. And a lot of the pop singers. I’m lawyers talking about this Mariah Carey school of singing. They all sound the same, they all always sing about being victims, blah blah blah-blah. The only one that I like is Britney because she’s such a complete little pervert. I love her, she’s not trying to be a singer, she’s so produced and distorted that she sounds like some radioactive little animal. That’s why I like her, but then I would. I like her for all the wrong reasons, but that’s okay.

Right, can we talk a bit about Defixiones? There’s the family connection there, right? But what made you take it as your new over-riding subject?

Well, you know what, you should go to my website. There’s three or four papers put in the website, because they explain the work very, very well and in terms of the present, of what just happened her in new York. I think that when you’re coming out of a culture like that — I heard these stories from my father for years — that was dominated for many many years, and you see the death of your culture through disinterest and powerful interests from outside. Let’s say it’s like what we have now, with this liaison between America and Turkey, because of this war, they’re leaning on each other and always have, which means that whoever has been screwed by turkey is going to continue to be screwed by turkey in a big way. That’s Greece, Armenia, Cyprus, the Kurds… and the big powers aren’t going to give a fuck about them. That’s what the work is about in a way, the betrayal of these countries by the large powers. But it’s such a long discussion, it would probably be better if you looked at the website, rather than have me bewilder you with the history of Armenia for three hours!

Okay, that leads me on to something else I was going to ask: History seems to play a big part in what you do. I mean in terms of echoes. Like you say, there’s current parallels with Armenia’s past, then the work on AIDS, which seems to be very much a present concern, but you use texts form other eras…

You know what? I don’t do that intentionally. I must just be some sort of throwback. I do do that, and I was looking at the Plague Mass the other day, and it could just as easily be about what happened here the other day — I’m talking about the Divine Punishment — and it’s because of the language it’s spoken in. I’m not saying the work is timeless or something because of that, or say anything about my work. It’s just in general I tend to like these very poetic texts. I just think that perhaps as a composer I’m attracted to texts that lend themselves to a musical, liturgical treatment. They have this swing, this incantational quality. I mean it’s rather than just opening the village voice and taking out some stock phrases and saying ‘President Bush is An Asshole!’ It’s like during the AIDS crisis there were all these pictures of Jesse Helms’ penis painted by supposed artists trying to make a statement. What’s the statement there? That his penis is two inches, three inches… what? I mean when people look at those paintings done by some idiot in ten years time they’ll just be like, ‘WHY? Where are you at, buddy? Were you trying to sell that? Why? Who bought it? Who cares?’ So, I don’t know, maybe it’s just impossible for me to see things at that localised, pedestrian level. I don’t know why, I just find that impossible. If you look at Greek tragedy, say, it’s written in this language that is a larger gesture, it doesn’t try to get as parlour room as possible. I mean, talking with my friends, I can get more than parlour room, I can be as crass as you can imagine when it’s just a joke or just a conversation. But not with my work, no. I’m not interested in doing that.

So it’s picking sources that will resonate…

Yeah. And that don’t bore me to death. I can’t read this other crap, it bores me. I look at it and just say, ‘Eugh’. So, yeah, that would be my defence. And there was no offence from you, but I still had a defence!

Going back to what you were saying about the difference between recordings and performance… the performances are pretty full-on, and you have this pretty striking . Is that you? Or is that a planned way of getting your message across?

What exactly are you talking about?

The visual side of things. You have this, you know, you have a certain look…

Oh, well, that’s me as a performer. If you look at a lot of classical performers in the past, they would always have a look of some sort. When they were on stage they were performing and when they were offstage they weren’t. And I don’t think they were trying anything other than what the material demanded. You know when you get off stage, you can look like a person who they would not allow into a liquor store, then when you go onstage it’s a transformation. There really is a transformation: your spine is straighter, your voice is different, that’s what performing is, you put on your tuxedo and go, or whatever it is men do… Offstage, I am equal to any bag lady who ever hit the fucking subway. You know, it’s not my job, and when it’s not my job it’s really not my job.

So you see yourself very much as a performer as well as a musician?

Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Equally. Again, if you look at classical musicians, Rubenstein or someone, they would never think of themselves as one of the other. I mean, if you don’t know the fucking music you’d better not get on the stage, and if you can’t perform the music on stage you’d better not get on stage. Put it on a record and you can be Glenn Gould, but the music ends up suffering because of that.

Right, so what’s coming up after Defixiones.

Well, I have all these records coming out. I haven’t been interested in putting out records for quite some time, so they’re all coming out one after the other. I just became more interested in performing all over the place and, aside from that, one does have to pay the rent, and I get paid a lot of money for performing and considerably less for selling records. It’s totally disproportionate. In fact it’s probably more disproportionate than anyone has ever known! I laugh about it, because I don’t really need to sell records.

So how do you feel about all these over the top descriptions attached to your performances? The Dark Diva and all that…

Well, that’s the nicest one I’ve ever heard! At least there’s some truth in it: I do perform in darkness, I do have black hair, so, gee, it’s not completely inaccurate… I have heard some pretty ridiculous ones, particularly in the British press. On in time out in particular recently… boy, that guy had better be running for his life if he sees me again. He’d better be fucking running, because he misquoted me, well, not even me, I was quoting Oscar Wilde, and he completely misquoted me and Oscar Wilde. For this he is really going to eat shit! Actually ,he really ate shit that night! He knows who he is, I won’t mention his name.

You’re making me nervous! Do you have a mistrust for the press and the way they represent you, then?

No. I have mistrust for people who are trivial, and there are people who are trivial in every profession. People who choose to be trivial really are amazing to me, and I don’t feel that it’s my job to understand them, but if I want to insult them on occasion, then I can just do it for sport and in defence of myself.

Posted at 11am on 15/01/01 by Jack Mottram to the interviews category.
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